The Role of Intellectual Property in Empowering Women’s Innovation: Challenges and Opportunities

Published Date: May 24, 2023

On the 26th of April 2023, the world celebrated World Intellectual Property Day. This annual observance is dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of intellectual property (IP) rights and their contribution to innovation and creativity. This year’s theme, Women And IP: Accelerating Innovation And Creativity, highlights the role of women in innovation and the challenges they face in protecting their intellectual property. More about this day can be read  in our earlier article here.

Innovation and IP are crucial drivers of economic growth and development, and women are increasingly contributing to these areas. However, despite their contributions, women still face significant challenges in protecting their innovations and leveraging IP rights.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), women account for approximately 21 percent of listed designers in global industrial design applications found in WIPO’s Global Design Database. This figure has doubled since 2001, but it is still significantly low. At the current rate gender equality is not expected until at least 2099. Research shows that; women are underrepresented in the STEM fields, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women, and women face barriers to entrepreneurship, such as gender bias, pay inequality, and lack of access to funding and networks.

Women-led companies receive a small fraction of venture capital funding globally. According to Pitchbook, companies founded solely by women received just 2.1% of total capital invested in US venture-backed startups in 2022. This percentage was higher for companies with at least one female founder but still lower than companies founded solely by men. This highlights the under representation of women in IP generally which leads to a lack of diversity.

On the home front, statistics show similar trends. While the country has been making progress in supporting women-owned businesses, it is apparent that lack of access to funding continues to be a challenge for women-led companies. According to SME South Africa, women-led companies make up only 21% of the formal small and midsize enterprise sector. Across Sub- Saharan Africa, female participation in business ownership only averages about 25%.

These statistics indicate that women have and continue to face challenges when it comes to innovation and IP. This is particularly the case in STEM fields, research and development, entrepreneurship, and venture capital. However, initiatives are underway to address these disparities, such as increasing the representation of women in STEM fields and providing support and resources to women entrepreneurs.

Various organisations and initiatives have been established to support women in the intellectual property field. To name but a few:

  • The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) has launched the WIPO PROOF initiative, which provides a digital platform for creators to record and share their work in a secure and tamper-proof way. This initiative can be a valuable resource for women who are looking to protect their innovations.
  • The Intellectual Property and Gender Action Plan (IPGAP) aims to address the gender gap in the intellectual property field. The program provides training and support to women in the field of intellectual property and encourages their participation in the industry.
  • Women’s Entrepreneurship Accelerator (WEA) launched in 2019, is a collaboration between the United Nations, five UN agencies, and the private sector that seeks to provide women entrepreneurs with the skills, resources, and networks they need to succeed in their ventures. This includes providing training on intellectual property rights and strategies for protecting innovation.
  • The Women Entrepreneurship Programme is a development and support programme aimed to support women entrepreneurs in South Africa. The support includes training to improve digital and financial literacy capabilities, which will assist in opportunities and access to finance and markets to women-led companies.
  • The SmartFund™ initiative seeks to assist businesses to apply for funding allocation from the government for trade marks, patents and designs filed out of South Africa. The funding, if granted, covers up to R100 000 per annum on a 50% contribution basis once approved. This is a programme that can be very beneficial to supporting women in the intellectual property field.

Although challenges women face in protecting their intellectual property are substantial, initiatives, such as those highlighted above, are underway to address this.

By providing women with the resources they need to protect their innovations, a more diverse and inclusive intellectual property landscape that fosters innovation, drives economic growth and development can be created.

Maureen Makoko
Senior Associate | Trade mark Attorney

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